Warning: Minor spoilers ahead for How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World.
How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World is the end of a journey. The DreamWorks film, in theaters now, concludes the three-part story that started with the Viking Hiccup going against everything he’d been raised to do and saving the life of a dragon, Toothless. Their unlikely friendship caused indelible change in Hiccup’s small village of Berk; Vikings and dragons started to live alongside each other in harmony for the first time. Hiccup and Toothless matured because of each other and with other. They’ve survived invasion, the loss of Hiccup’s father and chief of Berk, and the pains of growing up.
The Hidden World takes the duo into new territory, though: Hiccup and Toothless have to understand who they can be without each other. Hiccup has become the chief of his tribe. Toothless is the alpha leader of all the dragons who live with Berk’s Vikings. Hiccup wants them all to live in harmony, but the presence of so many dragons continually attracts enemies (Grimmel in this movie) who want to use or kill them. Hiccup has to explore the possibility of letting Toothless go. Nerdist talked to The Hidden World director and writer Dean DeBlois about ending Hiccup’s journey, Toothless’ love story, dragon genetics, and more.
Nerdist: After the first film, you were approached about a sequel and you pitched a trilogy. Is taking Hiccup and Toothless to a point where they may have to part ways the ending you envisioned, and if not, how did it change?
Dean DeBlois: Yes. The idea of the trilogy was in part inspired by a conversation with Cressida Cowell, who wrote the books. The narrative is very different between the movies and the books. But she did say she was working on the last installment when she came by to visit [DreamWorks] in 2010. Part of that was she wanted to explain what happened to dragons and why they aren’t here anymore. I thought that tied in so nicely to the opening line of her very first book, which was, “There were dragons when I was a boy.”
So, despite the differences in narrative, I thought that was a really wonderful goal—we could see Hiccup go through these three acts of his life, from a Viking runt ne’er-do-well, to wise, selfless, Viking chief, but in the process lose the connection with dragons, and explore what happened and what led to that. The mysteries and the emotional value of it was very inspiring to me.
How to Train Your Dragon has these moments where characters break tradition—Hiccup is the first Viking to decide not to kill a dragon. But then Hiccup and Astrid and others follow traditional roles within Berk and the tribe. How do you find a balance between tradition and being progressive?
DD: I never really considered it, actually. I mean, there’s always that character who thinks outside of the box and helps evolve our traditions, which have their own merit and value in a lot of cases, but he expanded the thinking of his tribe without abandoning their heritage, and until this movie, their sense of home. It’s nice to have that character that always challenges the norms and gets you to think about something from a different angle. Everyone’s come to know that Hiccup has some wild ideas, but there’s usually merit.
Turning my attention to Toothless, I read that to help the animators, you write scripts for the dragons even though they don’t speak—at least not in a way we can understand. What was the dialogue like for Toothless and this new dragon he encounters and falls for, the Light Fury?
DD: Yes, for example, when they have their moment flying through the storm clouds, and he steals a kiss, they fly over the water under the Northern Lights. She leads him to what we’ve come to know as a waterfall at the edge of the known world. And as they soar above it, I wanted a very specific exchange between them where he looks down in curiosity and turns to her. And she says, “My home.” And he says, “Take me there.” And then she grabs him and takes him down. I wrote that into the script that I gave that to Randy Thom, our sound designer; he then tried to create that vocabulary.
I also told our animators that. So, in their pantomime, and within the boundaries of our dragon communication and without becoming too anthropomorphic, we tried to also indicate that it’s curiosity answered by something reassuring, and then an invitation.
Much of the movie is about Toothless, maybe just as much as it is about Hiccup, and we get to see a fair amount of his developing relationship with Light Fury on the screen. What made you decide to give their relationship time in the spotlight?
DD: It was a conscious decision at known peril in the sense that, some of the criticisms I’ve read so far of this movie, is that the young characters, the secondary cast, are underserved, or our villain feels a little underserved. But it was a conscious decision knowing that we had a finite number of minutes, according to our budget. If you think of animation, every minute is at least a million dollars if not more.
But I did set out from the start to tell a more intimate story that was more reliant upon the development of Toothless’ storyline, and the call of the wild that he experiences and how that impacts Hiccup and his sense of security and his sense of identity. It’s not a movie that is crafted around giant set pieces and scale and scope. It has some discovery and it has some comedy and it has some wonder, but it’s a little more heavily reliant upon the emotional learning curve of letting go of something you love.
You mentioned the villain, Grimmel. In the second film, the villain had different plans for the dragons, but it was still a bad guy going after dragons. Was it difficult to make Grimmel stand apart from Drago?
DD: Yeah, we leaned a little more heavily into Hiccup’s crisis of faith within the story. He has come to firmly believe in this idea of coexistence with dragons and with tenacity, he can persuade anyone to embrace this idea that they belong together, humans and dragons. Then in this movie, we have to shift to the more difficult-to-grasp notion that they’re better off apart. And truly the essence of that is an understanding of what is selfless in this arrangement. Selfishly, he wants a world where everyone can get together, and selflessly, he understands that Toothless needs to follow his own path. To do that with hope for the future and a sense of what may have been, but also reminding the audience we have our own issues to work out as humans, was really the trick in all of that.
Grimmel was meant to lay into that idea. Not only is he diametrically opposed to Hiccup’s point of view in terms of coexistence, but he intends to snuff it out in the way that is familiar in the very immovable intolerance of our world. That those who refuse to, in their own elitist fashion, adjust to an idea that is broader than their simplistic thinking about thieves and murderers and vermin that need to be wiped out.
Toothless and the Light Fury go on to form a family. What were the conversations like about designing their little dragon babies?
DD: It’s something nice about Toothless being the last of his kind. It makes him special within our world, and it has a bit of a tragic past as we come to learn with Grimmel. But the idea of furthering a new species in a sense, if they’re both sub-species of the Fury class, that they could in combination have these Nightlights, as we call them, which will be a combination of their different traits. To me, it’s a new breed that’s out there that will continue to be the best of both.
You basically got to discuss dragon genetics.
DD: Yeah! We didn’t want them to be dairy cows—not something as simply as black and white spotted creatures. We were taking a look at the different features, the subtle differences between both Toothless and the Light Fury, and then combining them in this compact, cute little shapes.